It’s usually around this time of year, when temperatures have dropped to their lowest in the Midwest and the Northeast, that men and women are reaching into the back of their coat closets for their leather Pelle Pelle jackets to keep warm. Or, if their bank accounts are flush, they’re headed to a mall or some other retail strip for a new one.
But this winter might be the last for this tradition. Pelle Pelle, which grew from a designer’s basement in Detroit into one of the staple brands intertwined with hip-hop for the better part of the last three decades, appears to have ceased all operations earlier this year, and no one knows exactly why.
The brand was started by Detroit designer Marc Buchanan, who got his start as a designer at a now-defunct local house called Gandalf Leather before striking out on his own in 1978. Now, according to business owners who knew Buchanan, he’s retired, and depending on who you talk to, Pelle Pelle – or “leather leather” in Italian – itself may or may not live on.
Like Cartier frames, alligator dress shoes and mink bombers before them, Pelle Pelle leathers first earned a reputation with hardworking Detroiters looking for a way to show off what they earned with profit-sharing checks and end-of-year bonuses garnered through the Motor City’s numerous factory gigs.
Marvin Mansour, director of the Metro Detroit chain of fur and leather stores Donna Sacs, says his store was the first to carry Buchanan’s designs. “My uncle Steve was a buyer of the brand. He started bringing them out to the store in Fairlane,” he says, referring to the Dearborn mall.
Mansour credits the champion boxer Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns with popularizing the brand locally in the early ‘80s. Hearns, a Detroit native, is said to have commissioned a leather suit from Buchanan after visiting a Donna Sacs store in the now-demolished Northland Center. “Once a famous person like Tommy Hearns, who was an icon of Detroit, wears that brand, the impact – whether they’re wearing it out to the club or out of state – never stopped.”
The Pelle Pelle leather designs became more adventurous as the years went on. Buchanan began adding rhinestones and fur trims. Once cut slim, the jackets became looser. The logos got bigger and he experimented with different stitch patterns and leathers.
“He had a design team, but he oversaw everything from the rhinestones to the studs to the designing. He was actively involved during the entire run of the brand. You got a customer that bought a jacket in the ‘80s or ‘90s and you’d never know it was that old because the designs he came up with never went out of style,” Mansour said.
And as Pelle Pelle’s popularity grew – a jacket even landed in an episode of Cheers, worn by Ted Danson, late in the show’s run in 1991 – so did the number of stores who carried the brand. “I had a lot of success with it for 40 years,” says Randy Kurtz, owner of The Mister Shop in Chicago. “Forty-two years ago, I only had one coat and two years ago, I was selling 400 of them a year.”
Mansour notes that Pelle Pelle predated the explosion of urban brands in the ‘90s like Fubu and Akademiks. But Buchanan’s forward-thinking designs – and expanding the brand beyond leather by adding denim, tees and hoodies to the line, a few of which were proudly worn by this writer back in their early 2000s heyday – primed the brand to stand alongside the others as more and more rappers, especially on the chilly East Coast, became unofficial brand ambassadors. 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Redman, Nas and Ghostface Killah, among several others, have all name-checked the brand at some point.
“The first Pelle I got, I came up on,” Harlemite Dave East told XXL in 2016. “I ain’t gonna say how I got it, but I came up on my first Pelle I ever had. Everybody in Harlem had them. Every color: yellow, neon green, purple, black, the butter-soft ones, the hard joints with the rhinestones all on them.”
Windy City natives Twista and Kanye West both talk about it; the brand made it down to Atlanta where T.I. and Ludacris have rhymed about it. OGs Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five commissioned custom designs from Buchanan for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“Marc didn’t cut corners. Everything he produced was the best of the best. Customers knew what they were buying. He went out and shopped the market and knew what the customer wanted. That’s what also allowed Pelle to last as long as it did,” Mansour says.
The home base for design and marketing remained in the Detroit area, but Pelle Pelle also gained a surprising following in Japan because the factory that made the jackets was there before Buchanan moved manufacturing to China and Korea. Streetwear scenes in Europe also saw an influx of the brand – and that’s where it gets complicated.
Sometime in the last few years the Pelle Pelle brand was licensed to Too Shy, a wholesaler and retailer based in Denmark, established in 1997 and managed by a father and two sons. Their website reads, “The Hinz family are well-established wholesalers in Denmark and have extensive experience in design, production and import of Street Wear and Hip Hop lines to the Scandinavian market.”
That’s caused confusion for American fans of the brand, who have posted questions on various Pelle Pelle accounts – some operated by the American brand and largely inactive since late 2018, and others based in Europe – about what’s exactly going on with Pelle Pelle. A Google search query to “tooshy Pelle Pelle” turns up “what happened to the pelle pelle website.”
“Too Shy has the Europe license on Pelle Pelle, so what happens in the US has nothing to do with Too Shy,” Gorm Petersen, a sales manager for Too Shy, writes in an email. “We only sell in EU and I don’t know what is going on in the US.”
Getting a hold of the elusive Buchanan himself is tricky. Biographical information, save for a short Wikipedia entry and an entry on Fashion Model Directory, is scant, and exhaustive searches for anything even remotely matching a Facebook or Twitter profile turn up nothing.
Mansour says the last time he spoke with Buchanan was early in 2019 when the designer said he was retiring. “Can you imagine being one person with that mind for a brand and keep it going for 40 years? It was a great run,” Mansour say.s
It’s unclear why Buchanan left the biz or what the future of the brand is. It would be easy to point to Buchanan going nonstop for four decades and perhaps wanting to wind down operations and kick back. Or despite a loyal following among enthusiasts, it’s possible hip-hop’s current athleisure-clad generation doesn’t have the same affinity.
Mansour left my contact information with Buchanan. Other stores that have carried the brand had mixed answers when asked if they knew what’s happened to Pelle Pelle. “I think the company closed, so whatever we have on the floor is what we have left. There is no more Pelle Pelle,” says a clerk at New York clothing retailer NYC Bronx Inc. “I tried to buy the brand,” Kurtz in Chicago says. “But (a distributor) called Originale makes the same ones for me. It’s the same as Pelle Pelle, without the Pelle Pelle name.”
“If you go on their website, there’s a licensing company that you can contact. They’re in the process of putting out the brand and licensing the name and the merchandise,” Mansour says, referring to Too Shy. “That happens with all labels, even though they go out of business. There are companies that take it on.” Mansour stops short of saying that Pelle Pelle’s European designs won’t measure up to Buchanan’s but wonders, “How do you replace someone’s mind and innovation like he had, I don’t know. It’s not easy.”
Aaron K. Foley is a Detroit-based writer and author.